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Posts Tagged ‘Galatians’

I have heard recently of three different situations in which clergy have been the target of cruel attacks by people in the congregation. It is not unusual for the attack to be anonymous: a cruel note degrading the minister’s character or competency left without a signature, or comments passed along by a third party that “a lot of people are saying . . . ” Often this way of treating another human being  is a long-standing pattern in the congregation.  Other members of the congregation know that this has been happening and even know who the perpetrators are.

Advice has been offered by other clergy who have been through similar experiences. (A great resource is the Clergy Support Network)

Some of the advice that is offered is psychological:

“Keep reminding yourself: ‘It’s not about you’. You are the target of somebody else’s emotional or psychological issues.” Kathy Smith, in Stilling the Storm provides a helpful image: think of yourself as being the person carrying the ball in a football game. People are attacking you, not because you are doing anything wrong or because they don’t like you. They are attacking you because you’re carrying the ball. Very often, the situation really is not ‘about you’. However, many of us still have to do our own emotional and psychological work in order to distance ourselves from the hurtful comments made by others. That’s hard work but essential for ministry.

Some of the advice is systemic:

“Don’t deal with this on your own. Let your Ministry & Personnel Committee handle it. Have the Board pass a motion that anonymous comments will not be given any notice. Bring it to your [insert the relevant committee name] deal with it.” The way the congregation conducts itself is not merely the responsibility of the ordered ministry personnel. It is the responsibility of the whole Body of Christ. When I have been in such a situation, I have sometimes been told, “You need to develop a thicker skin.” That may be true sometimes, but it is also true that the congregation needs to nurture and sustain a culture that says, “This is not how we treat one another. It is not appropriate to attack another human being. Here’s how you deal with issues that arise . . . ”

Some of the advice is sociological:

When congregations are dying, they begin to exhibit toxic behaviours. I have found Alan Roxburgh‘s The Missional Leader helpful in navigating the way through congregational crises and the behaviour that goes with them. In the midst of the confusion, conflict and anxiety that are typical in a time of crisis, “missional leaders need to be skilled in engaging conflict and helping people live in ambiguity long enough to ask new questions about who they are as God’s people. . . Missional leaders can model ways of engaging conflict to bring about change. They must be ready to create conflict that helps people think differently, name conflict, and facilitate its resolution. They will live with conflict and still sleep at night” (p. 134 -135).

I find it interesting, however, that the apostle Paul deals with conflict as a spiritual issue. In Galatians 5, he lists the ‘works of the flesh’ (flesh being the word he uses to describe a life lived under our own power, without radically depending upon God and without referring all of life to what God has done in Jesus Christ). Included in the list are: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions”. When people treat each other badly, it’s a sign that there’s something amiss with their spiritual life. An unhealthy congregation is a congregation with spiritual issues that need to be addressed. They have forgotten who they are in Christ and what is required to live a life ‘worthy of the calling to which they have been called” (Ephesians 4:1).

Typically, in his letters to the churches, Paul begins by talking about what God has done in Christ and about the ‘new age’ that is now present because of Christ’s death and resurrection. He immerses us in God’s grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit and our identity as baptized followers of Christ. Then, in the last half, he speaks to relationships within the church. The way we treat each other is rooted in our relationship with God: Have we entrusted ourselves to God? Are we open to Christ’s activity in our lives and in the world? Are we willing to submit ourselves to the guidance and transforming power of the Holy Spirit?

I wonder what difference it would make if we took that connection more seriously when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict and dissension in our congregations? Certainly, there are helpful things we can do and learn psychologically, sociologically, systemically. However, what if we also recognized that spiritual issues were at the heart of the problems?  What if we framed the issues between us in terms of our relationship with God? What if the congregational response to people behaving badly was to go back to basics: Who are we in Christ? What does it mean to live in radical trust in God?

People in the congregation who treat others cruelly, maliciously, manipulatively call the whole congregation to attend to their life with God. The whole church needs to attend more deeply to its spiritual growth and development, not just the person who is doing the attacking. The whole congregation needs to ask, “What is required of us in terms of spiritual growth, spiritual practices, spiritual disciplines so that we cultivate a culture in our church where that kind of behaviour is known to be unacceptable?”

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A reflection on Galatians 5: 1, 13 -25 and Luke 9:51-62

 

“For freedom, Christ has set you free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit yourselves again to the yoke of slavery.”  Galatians 5:1

Many people lead very busy lives. How often do you feel driven by a sense of having too many things to do and having too little time to do them in? Do you feel pulled between what you have to do and what you should do and what you want to do? Faced with unlimited options, do you feel tangled in a web of duties, obligations, commitments and desires?

If finding some balance were simply a matter of choosing the important things and leaving some unimportant things undone, most of us could manage that. However, life is often not that clearcut. So often the choices are not between the important and the trivial; between something that must be attended to and something that can be left for another time. You get caught between too many important duties and obligations and commitments, all of which have merit and legitimate claims upon your attention.

In Pastor, William Willimon tells of leading Bible study on temptation. He was trying to relate the topic to the lives of those who were participating. One man burst out, “I’ll tell you what temptation is. Temptation is when your boss calls you in, as mine did just yesterday and say, “I’m going to give you a real opportunity. I’m going to give you a bigger sales territory. We believe that you are going places young man.”
“But I don’t want a bigger sales territory,” I told him. I’m already away from home four nights a week. It wouldn’t be fair to my wife and daughter.”
“Look, we’re asking you to do this for your wife and daughter. Don’t you want to be a good father? It takes money to support a family these days. Sure, your little girl doesn’t take much money now, but think of the future. I’m only asking you to do this for them.”

Whether you believe the boss or not when s/he says, “We’re only asking you to do this for them,” you can get caught between wanting to do what’s best for your family and wanting to do well in your job and doing your part in serving the community and supporting your faith community. How do you live in such a way that doesn’t leave your soul withered, your strength depleted, your mind spinning? What does it take to ‘hold firm’ to the freedom and  joy which Christ has won for us?

In today’s gospel story, Jesus invites people to follow him and they respond with a litany of other commitments and important obligations: “Let me bury my father first.” “I need to say good-bye to my family first.”   Jesus doesn’t flinch: “Let the dead bury the dead. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent. Announce God’s Kingdom.” “No procrastinating, no backward looks. You can’t put off the Kingdom till tomorrow. Seize the day!” (Luke 9: 60, 62, The Message)

These were not trivial excuses that these people were making. They were not asking for leave to go to one last party before they gave up ‘the good life’ and started taking religion seriously.  They were responsible people, trying to juggle family, job, and Jesus’ call. Yet, even to them, Jesus is unyielding: even of them Jesus demands that they put him as the priority over every other claim in their lives. Why? Why should he be so adamant and firm? He is adamant and firm because what is at stake is freedom, joy, and peace. Those can be found only when you live out of God’s choices for your life, not out of your own. And, you can only know what God’s choice, God’s agenda is, when you spend time with God.

You keep free, says Paul to the Galatians, when you let your life be grasped by God. You hold onto Christ’s freedom not by knowing which choices to make but by knowing yourself chosen by God. There is a story about Mother Teresa speaking with a young man who had joined her order. He had been complaining that his superior was insisting that he spend more time in prayer. It was keeping him from the lepers whom he had been called to serve. She told him, “Your call is not to serve lepers. Your call is to belong to Jesus”.

The most important choice in your life has already been made. God has chosen you. God is active in your life. God longs to have love and joy and freedom permeate your living. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control are fruit of the Spirit — the outgrowth of letting God’s Spirit dwell more and more deeply in your heart and mind and life. In the midst of all your important obligations and valuable commitments, take time to be known by God, to belong to Jesus. Let God lead you into the wide open spaces of salvation. Let Jesus teach you the ‘unforced rhythms of grace‘.  ‘For freedom, Christ has set you free’.

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The lectionary has been taking us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Last week, in Galatians 2: 15-21, he juxtaposed the ‘works of the Law’ and being ‘justified by faith’. Somewhere I found two very helpful articles (“The Ego and the I, by Scot McKnight, Christian Century, September 7, 2004, p. 22 and “Galatians in Perspective” by Frank Matera, Interpretation, July 2000), that proposed that Paul wasn’t setting the Old Testament Law against New Testament ‘grace’.  Judaism is a covenant-based faith, not a religion focused on ‘works righteousness’, i.e. of keeping the Law as a way of earning merit with God.  The articles proposed that when Paul spoke about the ‘works of the Law’, he was referring to an ‘identity marker’ for the Jewish community. The Jewish community existed as a minority in Roman culture. In response to many pressures to assimilate to Roman culture, they held on to ‘keeping the law’ as a practice that helped them maintain their identity. This ‘badge of identity’, these practices that gave them their special identity, erected socio-ethnic-religious barriers between Jews and Gentiles.

Paul was working through the implications of the reality that the Holy Spirit was bringing Gentiles in to the covenant community. In Jesus Christ, God has adopted everyone into God’s covenant community. How, then, do groups of radically different people exist in community together? Does one group have to adopt the practices of the other? Paul’s response is an adamant, “NO!” The ‘identity marker’ for the Church is a life of radical trust in Jesus, a life of living in Jesus’ Way. This radical trust frees in God’s goodness and grace and countercultural power, frees us to give ourselves generously to others.

Verse 16 has usually been translated “a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” However, that translation still leaves us in the driver’s seat of our lives — we get set right with God because we choose to believe in Jesus. The phrase can also be translated ‘through the faith of Jesus Christ.’. The identity marker of the Christian community is not something we do. Our identity is rooted in Jesus’ faith: his trust that God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s love are the strongest forces in the universe; trust that God’s promises are true, even when the evidence seems to point to the contrary; trust that, whatever happens, nothing can take a person outside the power of God’s love; trust that even our dead ends can be made new beginnings by God’s resurrecting power. Jesus’ faith goes further than that: it is faith that you and I are so precious, so deeply valued, so loved, that we are worth dying for; that God wants all of God’s children home and will not stop until they are there.

Put Jesus’ faith at the centre of your life, and watch your life change. Watch the transformations begin to happen. Watch a new community begin to take shape.

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Continuing reflections on Galatians 1: 11-24

Following Jesus on his Way takes us down paths that are different from what we have been used to. We have been trained to work very hard to maintain the illusion that we are in control in our lives. We have been taught to get what we believe is right or what we think will make our lives turn out right. Sometimes, we are even willing to trample over other people in order to make that happen. We are even prone to using religion to get us there. That is when we are most dangerous.

As Christians, at the end of the day, all our actions are answerable to Jesus who refused the way of arrogance and intimidation and coercion. This way is so odd and so counter-cultural that transformation is required. We need constant retraining in it. For Paul, that transformation began in the three years after his encounter with Jesus on the road. For us, that retraining happens every Sunday when we gather to worship. In worship, we practice being the kind of people who are formed by Jesus’ way of freedom:

We practice looking in the right direction by hearing stories of the way Jesus saw people. Our eyes begin to see them differently. Even strangers and enemies become brothers and sisters.

We sing our songs to God. If they are good and faithful songs, they re-direct our hearts toward God. All week long, there are forces that pull us toward what is happening in the world and toward what we are doing or need to be doing. Regularly, we need to intentionally direct our attention to God and to what God is doing. If we don’t, we’ll miss the signs of God’s action. Then, we shall miss out on the most important thing that is going on in any situation.

We gather regularly around the table where Jesus offers to meet us in all our diversity. At that table, we learn to welcome even strangers into our midst. We come with empty hands and we receive the gifts God has for us. Doing that in worship, we learn to receive the gifts of God in the world as well.

We spend time with our crucified and risen Saviour so that our whole life, our being, gets shaped in grace-filled ways.

Living in the freedom Christ gives does not come naturally to us, but that freedom is the atmosphere that allows new relationships to emerge — the kinds of reconciling relationships that this world desperately needs.

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A reflection on Galatians 1: 11-24

A recent edition of the United Church Observer, Ken Gallinger interviewed former moderator Lois Wilson. He reminded her that, when she was moderator, she was always ‘lobbing stuff into the political process’. He asked her, “What’s it like to be on the other side?” do you have people lobbing stuff at you?” “Not a lot,” she replied. “Hardly anything from the churches…We’ve lost our nerve. We’ve vacated the public forum…We’re so afraid of being tagged as ‘Christians trying to convert people’ that we will not say, ‘I am a Christian and this is what it means.’ We’re really good at social justice but really bad at our connection with Jesus.”

We’re afraid of being like the apostle Paul was before Jesus hijacked his life on the road to Damascus — when he was still Saul. At the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he describes his devotion to his religious convictions: “I went all out persecuting [people with whom I disagreed]. I was systematically destroying them.” (The Message). When we hear his story, we say, “It’s people like Saul who give religion a bad name.” Some people, then, make the leap to saying that the only way to live in peace in our global village is to get rid of religion altogether. That attitude remains popular even though there is no evidence that doing so would actually bring peace. Secular ideologies have proven just as murderous as religious ideologies. In the past century, more people were killed in the name of nation states than in the name of religion. Holding religious convictions, even holding them passionately, does not necessarily lead to fanaticism. Believing something is true does not automatically make you intolerant, arrogant and violent.

In Traveling Light, Eugene Peterson reflects on the difference between Saul and Paul. The difference, he says, is Jesus. Saul was violent in his opposition to people whom he thought were wrong; Paul was just as passionate and zealous after his encounter with the risen Christ, but Paul now used words and the power of his own suffering to persuade people. Saul, he says, “was consumed with ambition to make the world orderly and to make people good.” Saul was very busy doing things for God; making a difference in the world for the sake of God. He knew how to get things done.

Then, Jesus stopped Saul in his tracks and turned his life in a different direction. After that encounter, Paul wasn’t so much doing things for God, as God was doing things in and through Paul. It was a life-altering shift. Paul was no longer the centre of his life. God was. Religion was no longer a passion for getting things done in order to help God make the world a better place. Religion was the passion to pay attention to God: learning to see what God was up to and then letting God work through him.

Jesus did not come as a conquering hero, imposing God’s will upon everyone. Jesus refused the way of violence and coercion. He was willing to die on a cross rather than choose violence. Instead, Jesus offered grace, suffering love, forgiveness, and the Spirit who make new possibilities out of our dead ends. Jesus used words and stories to draw people in to God’s healing and reconciling love.

Because the God who met Paul on the road to Damascus is the God who comes to us as Jesus Christ, the work God does through us is characterized by the way Jesus lived.

The way God creates peace in our world is by gathering an alternative community around this Jesus — an alternative community that is willing to live trusting in the grace of God. This community keeps meeting Jesus on the way and lets Jesus re-shape its life by his Word.

As the Christian Church, we have rightly repented of our attempts arrogantly to impose our values and cultural preferences on others. That does not mean that we must deny what we believe. It does mean that we must learn to live in our pluralist culture in ways that more clearly witness to the goodness and grace and love of Jesus.

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A reflection on Galatians 1
In a recent posting on Faith and Leadership, Will Willimon was commenting on Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton pushing for a constitutional amendment in Alabama that would allow legalized casinos. They said that there motivation was “jobs for casino workers in some of the state’s poorest counties”. Willimon wrote about the social devastation and corruption that casinos inevitably bring. Then, he reflected on “the peril of not being clear about the source of ministerial authority”.
It reminded me of Paul’s opening chapter in his letter to the Galatians. Paul spent 18 verses clearly setting out that his authority came from God’s call to him, not from any human authority. All the commentaries I have read on this chapter speculate that Paul was trying to establish his legitimacy in the minds of the Galatians. I wonder, though, whether or not he was also trying to keep clear for himself the source of his authority.
It is easy to lose sight of that source in ministry. For one thing, within a congregation, many people have different agendas for the minister. Trying to meet those agendas can leave very little time for prayer and for wrestling with the scriptures. It is a constant juggling act. Without a clear sense of what God has called one to be and to do in ministry, it is difficult to sort through all the demands and decide which ones to focus on and which ones to leave undone without feeling guilty.
The other challenge, however, comes from the diminishing authority and status of the clergy in the culture. When I was ordained 28 years ago, ordained ministers were held in relatively high regard in a community. I have seen that regard erode continuously over the years. The recurring scandals of clergy who have abused their authority have played some role in that. There is also a sense that clergy don’t do anything critically important or decisive. I remember talking with one woman about the levels of clergy compensation compared to other people with far less education. She commented, “Well, you have to take into account the importance of what they do.”
That lack of social regard can lead a minister to want to do something that affirms that what they do and who they are does have significance. That can also lead a minister to avoid doing some things that s/he fears would lead to diminished regard by others. For instance, I have seen clergy remain silent while someone has been treated unjustly because speaking out would jeopardize their own standing in the institution.
Another pressure comes from the cost of confronting corrupt systems. Part of the resistance to someone telling the truth comes in the form of an attack on the person who is raising uncomfortable questions. In such a situation, it is hard to remain free.
The first steps in Paul’s journey in freedom take him to the origins of his call and his authority. It’s God who sets the agenda. It’s God who gives authority and significance. Living the freedom that Christ gives means revisiting this regularly. I have found Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles enormously helpful in doing that.
While he acknowledges the pressures clergy are under to do many things, he reminds clergy of what is critical in their calling: the three practices of prayer, scripture and discernment. Without attention to those practices, the other activities don’t hold together. In all three, we re-direct our focus (which can get scattered in the press of the demands of the job) toward God.
Since the most decisive and determinative thing that’s going on in any situation is what God is up to, ‘working the angles’ becomes critical in staying on mission. I imagine it would still be possible to be mistaken in the stands we take on issues, since all of us are imperfect and discern God’s will imperfectly. But the focus on the three angles keeps a person open and creatively responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit. Walking in freedom becomes a matter of staying close to Jesus Christ who is our freedom.

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A reflection on Galatians 1: 3-9

Christ is our compass as we journey into freedom. Christ who ‘rescued us from this evil world we’re in by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins.’ Being set free from this ‘present evil age’ by this kind of Saviour must be difficult enough, or counter-cultural enough, that we look for an easier way. We encounter other directional signals along the way – promises about how to get a good life. Promises that would take us down paths in the opposite direction from Christ. Paul doesn’t describe them yet; he just warns us not to take the detours.
Paul is so adamant about this — he curses those who would lead people away from this gospel of freedom and of grace. There is obviously a great deal at stake here. Lies about God diminish us. They enslave us to lesser gods.
We’ll end up in a place where the gospel of Christ is perverted — where we are no longer living in the freedom Christ gives; where we no longer live in response to ‘God the Father who raised him from the dead’; where we no longer live out of God’s grace.
What a contrast to the ‘laissez-faire’ attitude that permeates conversations about spirituality these days. It is a great ‘sin’ to sound judgmental. “Everyone must find their own path” becomes the only acceptable truth.
Does that mean that we believe that all paths will lead us to a good place? Or, that we believe nothing critical is at stake in the spirituality people choose? Or, that we believe we have no authority to speak to others about such things?
Maybe all of those.
Yet, such an approach plays into the hands of the gods of consumerism, who do not leave us to find our own way. These days, consumerism is the spirituality that offers an alternate gospel. The gods of consumerism are actively at work to shape in us a particular vision of ‘the good life’. They are adamant that they have the products and experiences that will get us there. They relentlessly bombard us with advice on how to get better at consuming things.
Surely the gospel of grace in Christ Jesus offers more truth than that. Why aren’t we as passionate about speaking that truth as we are about competing with each other in the size of homes we own and the vacations we take and the toys we purchase?
We have a gospel about God bringing a future where none seems possible. We have a gospel about a Saviour who rescues us in the midst of this world’s steady march towards destruction — who gives us a way to live freely, creatively, courageously in the midst of it. Should we not be more distressed that people turn away from such a life-giving God and turn instead towards ways of living that are enslaving and killing them and destroying the creation?
To have Christ as our compass leads us on a passionate quest to find and tell the truth about God.

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